It appears the Wisconsin defensive coordinator position has become a great stepping stone.
With Justin Wilcox reportedly accepting a five-year deal to become the head coach at Cal, four of last five Wisconsin defensive coordinators have become head coaches: Chris Ash (Rutgers), Dave Doeren (N.C. State), Charlie Partridge (Florida Atlantic) and Wilcox. Last year’s defensive coordinator – Dave Aranda – has become one of the highest paid assistant coaches in college football.
In Wilcox's one season with Wisconsin, the Badgers' defense ranked fourth nationally in scoring defense, third in rushing defense and seventh in total defense. The unit also ranked second in interceptions and eighth in takeaways.
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For the third time in three seasons, Wisconsin needs to find a defensive coordinator. We’ve gathered several names through trusted outlets and speculation who are all either realistic options, rising candidates who should get a look at or pure speculation candidates who would be good fits.
This big board should change significantly pretty soon but the Badgers – who were set to pay Wilcox $950,000 in 2017 – will have money to work with to draw some attractive candidates across the coaching landscape.
Board prepared by Benjamin Worgull and Roderick Burgos
Wisconsin Outside Linebackers Coach Tim Tibesar (pictured above)
Likely the top internal candidate, Tibesar interviewed for the job last season but was passed over for Wilcox. Tibesar has coordinated defenses at Purdue, Kansas State and North Dakota, as well as being a defensive coordinator for Montreal in the CFL. Tibesar was one of the main factors for T.J. Watt’s breakout season in 2016, although his history as a defensive coordinator isn’t spectacular.
Wisconsin Defensive Backs Coach Jim Leonhard
Despite only having one season of coaching experience, Leonhard has become one of the hottest names rumored to be in contention for the job. Despite having to replace three defensive backs, Leonhard helped the starting defensive backs register 16 of the team’s 22 interceptions. Leonhard’s lack of coaching experience is a negative and running a defense with only one season of college coaching is highly unlikely, but Leonhard is certainly on the path to running a defense. Could he be a co-coordinator?
Former Florida Atlantic Head Coach Charlie Partridge
Fired after going 3-9 in three consecutive season, Partridge will almost certainly look to get back in the game as a coordinator. A big plus is Partridge’s previous experience at Wisconsin, especially having already held the defensive coordinator role and worked with Chryst for four seasons. It’s confirmed that Wisconsin staff reached out to Partridge following his dismal to lend support and offer any help they could. Partridge loved his time in Madison and is a tremendous recruiter in Florida, but his primary experience is working in a 4-3 scheme. It’s unlikely UW will overhaul its defense, considering they’ve recruited to that scheme for several years.
OTHER POTENTIAL CANDIDATES
Appalachian State Defensive Coordinator Nate Woody
A previous nominee for the Broyles Award, given to the top assistant coach in college football, Woody is a candidate that many should like as a potential coordinator hire. Beginning his career at Wofford, Woody has spent the last four years at Appalachian State and has developed the defense into one of the units in the Sun Belt Conference. He also has a history coaching inside and outside linebackers.
Illinois Defensive Coordinator Hardy Nickerson
We’re told that Nickerson also interviewed for the Cal job as well, having played in Berkeley as a player himself. Having now been passed over by the Golden Bears, could Nickerson jump to the old post left by the man who now holds the job he wanted in the first place? Nothing is too concrete here, but it could be something to watch should any of that sentiment come to fruition.
Pittsburgh Defensive Coordinator Josh Conklin
Conklin has the potential to be a home run hire and a huge steal should a large program such as Wisconsin come in and swoop him from Pittsburgh. Conklin is another name that has risen through the ranks fairly quickly, going from safeties coach at Tennessee to defensive coordinator at Florida International to his current job. Fans should be pleased if Wisconsin decides to kick the tires and see if there’s any interest.
Former Minnesota Defensive Coordinator Jay Sawvel
Recently unemployed after not being retained by head coach P.J. Fleck, Sawvel has experience as both a defensive backs and special teams coach, so there would be some overlap with Leonhard and special teams coach Chris Haering. Even so, Minnesota’s defense finished fifth in the Big Ten with 22.1 points allowed per game. The Gophers’ best performance came in their 17-12 victory over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl.